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Marcia Benjamin, Laney College

Love of swimming turned this coach into a teacher

Marcia Benjamin smiles, wearing bright glasses and a scarf.
Marcia Benjamin is a physical education instructor and swimming coach at Laney College in Oakland. She has been a CalSTRS member for 23 years.

When budget cuts hit Laney College’s Kinesiology Department, Marcia Benjamin added a side gig teaching a fee-based swimming class at the college to keep returning students afloat. This water-loving educator even founded her own U.S. Masters Swim team that welcomes swimmers of all abilities from recreational to triathletes. She thinks helping adults get over their fear of water and accomplish things they didn’t think possible with swimming is “the best part of teaching.”

Why did you become a teacher?

I think I’m kind of a natural teacher. Sometimes people start teaching and go to coaching, but I started coaching and went to teaching. Coaching, really, is just a combo of teaching with a little competitive thrown in.

Did you have a favorite teacher?

I had a favorite coach! My swim coach at Laney College was Fred Brown, and Fred is still teaching in Oakland at Merritt College. He was the one who really helped bring about my joy in swimming. And having joy makes everything better.

What is something that you’re proud of as a teacher?

It’s very gratifying to teach beginning swimming—to take adult learners who are mostly, at this age, afraid of the water and help them get over the fear and learn to swim. It’s the best part of teaching. I’ve had students who were really afraid of the water and who have moved on to loving it—swimming in deep water, going off the diving board and bringing their family to watch them on the last day of school. I’ve had people who have learned to swim with me and have joined my Masters swim team. To join a Masters swim team from not knowing how to swim is really amazing.

How did the fee-based swimming program come about?

We have two completely awesome pools at Laney College that can handle quite a bit of activity, but we’re down to just the bare minimum of classes offered because of budget cuts. Some people took my early morning classes for years, but when the repeatability regulations came about (prohibiting students from repeating successfully completed classes except under certain circumstances), they were no longer allowed to repeat my swimming classes. In response, we started a fee-based program that’s open to the public. We’re in a very dense urban area with lots of housing right around Lake Merritt, which is the centerpiece of Oakland. San Francisco has gotten crazy expensive, so we have lots of people who moved here. A lot of them are swimmers, so when they find out that there’s a program close to them, well the program has just grown and grown.

What is MEMO (Marcia’s Enthusiastic Masters of Oakland)?

Aside from the college’s creation of a fee-based class, I’ve formed MEMO—a U.S. Masters Swim team, which is competitive swimming for adults. I don’t get any extra compensation from that; it just allows us to have an identity as a team and our members get to compete under the banner of the team. It’s super fun! We probably have 30 All-American swimmers, people who have achieved the No. 1 time in the U.S. each year, and we have won the team title in the Pacific Division twice. We’re a medium-sized program and we beat teams that are more than eight times our size. The city of Oakland named a day after me and it was all because of the team and the championships. I’ve been nominated for national coach of the year and I’ve seen my swimmers do these amazing things like swim the Strait of Gibraltar, the length of Lake Tahoe, and the Kalohi and Pailolo Channels in Hawaii.

What is one thing you like to do for fun?

I am 24/7, 365 swimming—I love everything about it! My favorite thing in the whole world is going to competitions. I don’t get as much time to train as I like to because I’m around a pool all day, and when you’re an instructor and a coach, you’re not the one swimming. I have to swim and train on my own time. The thing that I’m doing now that I really enjoy is CrossFit—CrossFit is THE most awesome thing ever! It translates really well to the world of swimming.

Where is your favorite place to swim?

Santa Cruz pier—it’s the best! We have a race there every year. It starts on one side of the pier and we swim around to the other side. It’s a little over a mile and it’s just beautiful ocean, and you hear clackity-clack of the roller coaster and people screaming and smell deep fried twinkies or whatever they’re making. The sand is warm and the ocean is blue and it’s just perfect!

What would you like to do in retirement?

I don’t want to quit until I win some more stuff with my MEMO team. When I retire, I’d like to stay fit and active and keep swimming and training on my own, but it’s going to be really hard to not have the camaraderie of a 200-person team.

Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.